Mural by Ben Shahn in the main lobby of the Bronx General Post Office. Post office patrons congregate underneath.

Hidden Gems: Art in Unexpected Places Across New York City

By Margie Fuchs

What if you could run into Elizabeth Catlett in the park? Or bump into Jacob Lawrence on the subway? In New York City, art spills out of museums and galleries into the city, occupying public spaces of all shapes and sizes. To help you make the most of these long summer days, we take you on an art-filled journey from Times Square to the Bronx. Here are three pieces of public art not to miss:

1. Jacob Lawrence’s mural in the Times Square subway station

Mosaic mural by Jacob Lawrence in the Times Square subway station.
Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917-2000. New York in Transit, installed 2001. Glass mosaics on stairway wall. Times Square – 42nd Street MTA subway station, New York, New York. Image: MTA Arts and Design.

Before you start, pause for a moment in midtown Manhattan’s bustling Times Square – 42nd Street subway station to catch a glimpse of Jacob Lawrence’s New York in Transit (installed in 2001). The glass mosaic mural, located in the mezzanine between the N, Q, W, R and S trains, pays tribute to the diversity of New York City. Look closely and you’ll see references to New York’s various neighborhoods and industries, rich cultural life and, apt for the mural’s location, its monumental transportation system. Unlike Times Squares’ underground location, New York in Transit depicts city life as seen from an elevated train. The piece was Lawrence’s last public work and is seen by the estimated 50 million people, locals and tourists alike, who travel through the subway station each year.

2. Elizabeth Catlett’s Ralph Ellison Memorial in Riverside Park

Bronze memorial for author Ralph Ellison, featuring a cut-out of an adult man, by Elizabeth Catlett in New York.
Elizabeth Catlett, American, 1915-2012. Ralph Ellison Memorial, 2002-2003. Bronze and deer isle granite. 15 ft. x 7'6" ft. x 6 in. Riverside Park, New York, New York. Image: The City of New York.

On your way uptown, stop by Riverside Park in Harlem to see the monumental Ralph Ellison Memorial (2002-2003) by American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett. Unveiled in 2003 after the artist was selected through an art competition, the memorial is Catlett’s only public commission in New York. The 15-foot, rectangular sculpture honors Ellison, one of the nation’s great 20th century novelists and a long-time resident of Riverside Drive, who Catlett had met in the 1940s while working at the George Washington Carver School adult education program. The cut-out male figure at the center of the bronze piece nods to Ellison’s quote ““I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” included in Invisible Man (1952), Ellison’s most famous work addressing the socio-political issues facing African Americans in the early 20th century. This passage, along with lines from Ellison’s other works, is engraved on the stone markers that circle the sculpture. Together, the memorial’s visuals and inscriptions create a powerful portrait of a singular man who captured the invisibility felt by many.

3. Ben Shahn’s mural at the former Bronx Post Office

Mural by Ben Shahn in the main lobby of the Bronx General Post Office. Post office patrons congregate underneath.
Ben Shahn, American, 1898–1969. Mural in the main lobby of the General Post Office on the Grand Concourse at East 149th Street in the Bronx. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times.

Welcome to the last stop on our art trip: for over three generations, the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse was the pride of the community. More than a place to send packages, the Post Office was a center of the neighborhood, a place where locals congregated under Ben Shahn’s “Resources of America” murals in the ground floor lobby (1938-1939). Commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal Era, Shahn, assisted by his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, painted 13 murals portraying the diversity of the American workforce. The panels showcase rural field hands, mill and textile factory workers, engineers and construction workers from coast to coast. Hydroelectric dams and industrial blast furnaces extol the might of modern American industry. As with other WPA work, Shahn depicts the nobility of American workers, celebrating both their identities as individuals and the importance of their work in the success of the country. Shahn’s murals were landmarked in 2013. The post office was sold in 2014 to a development firm and put back on the market in fall 2018. While the building’s future remains uncertain, the Shahn murals remain protected for generations to come.

Cover image: Ben Shahn, American, 1898-1969. Resources of America, 1938-1939. Egg tempura on plaster fresco. Bronx General Post Office, Bronx, New York. Images: Demetrius Freeman/ The New York Times.